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SEATTLE — The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) attempts to confront the nuanced subtext of its vast collection of African masks in the ambitious and delightful exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. Recognizing that museums decontextualize ritual objects from their spiritual or narrative contexts, curator Pamela McClusky states in the press release: “While masks were exported in vast quantities to become a signature art form representing the African continent in the 20th century, masquerades were left behind.”
The curators thus engage with the notion of the mask as a catalyst, an object that takes on new meaning as it is worn and performed across history. The result is a survey of two dozen contemporary artists of African origin or descent whose practices engage in some way with the notion of self-presentation or disguise. Not all of the artists have a direct relationship with a masquerade tradition, and the show’s broad focus on the African diaspora allows for an eclectic and hybrid approach that opens as many doors as it closes.
While the resulting exhibition feels a bit diffuse, it’s compelling that SAM commissioned many new works and performances, and gave 10 artists entire galleries to themselves. Right off the bat, the viewer is confronted with Sondra R. Perry’s two videos framing the entrance. Entitled “Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera 1 and 11” (2013), the videos show Danny Giles and Joiri Minaya dancing like a maniac, their bodies removed in post-processing to be a shimmering refraction of the white gallery walls behind them. The work is paired with a large projection from Jakob Dwight’s The Autonomous Prism Mask project — a series of glitchy digital collages framed to match the silhouettes of masks from SAM’s collection.
The exhibition’s entrance prepares the viewer for Curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi’s inclination for new media. These contemporary takes on the exhibition’s themes suggest a certain necessity for disguise in the digital age, and that the masquerade might be a central characteristic of contemporary society at large.
This postmodern sense of schizophrenia is emphasized in the next room, which features more of Dwight’s flickering video loops, as well as a series of masks from varying African tribes with a range of ritual functions. Serving, in retrospect, as an early indication of the diverse cultures African masks are often purported to represent, the works fluidly navigate and embody identities as needed or desired.
This combination of spirituality and tech-centered futurism is found scattered throughout Disguise, culminating halfway through the show in ChimaTEK Corporation’s beta launch. Guised as a tongue-in-cheek corporate venture, Saya Woolfalk’s installation of lavish, post-human Buddhist avatars promises to give “clients access to a chimeric virtual existence” through “trademarked human hybridization technologies.” Explained in a text panel and explanatory video, Woolfalk’s post-racial utopia seems inviting if we were in fact allowed to wear her characters’ vaguely Japanese, mandala-esque outfits. I was certainly captivated enough to linger, although the success of the ritual is owed in part to an entrancing segment of Emeka Ogboh’s “Egwutronica” soundtrack (2014–2015).
Integrated throughout the exhibition, “Egwutronica” is a “nonintrusive but immersive sound installation” of synthesized beats and sampled African instruments that responds in part to the works on view. Shifting the silent sanctity of the museum to a different register, the soundscapes reinforce the notion of the masquerade as existing in a kind of “paraspace,” which is described on a text panel by Sondra Perry as a realm that exists parallel to or outside of ordinary life.
A personal favorite of the show, Jacolby Satterwhite’s video “Reifying Desire 3 – The Immaculate Conception of Doubting Thomas” (2013) combines 3D animation and video to create a polymorphous world jittering with frenetic energy and digitally rendered bodily fluids. Messy yet meticulous, Satterwhite pursues an unseen higher purpose, his deliberate movements conjuring the ritualistic, regardless of whether they follow any recognizable logic or pattern. Reminiscent of “Elenu Eiye” (2001), an archetypically foolish character’s mask and costume from earlier in the show whose title means “the owner of the mouth that’s in constant celebration,” Satterwhite’s video tests the limits of the absurd, who states in an accompanying text panel that in the digital age “the new glamour is being porous and parading your errors.”
Several artists in the show explore the masquerade tradition in a critical way. Wura-Natasha Ogunji exploits the anonymity provided by the masquerade to investigate the limits of an exclusively male tradition — for example, by parading costumed women through the streets of Lagos, Nigeria in broad daylight. Zina Saro-Wiwa conversely explores the identities of the men under the masks, taking poignant portraits that serve as “a document of [her] desire to penetrate this secretive world of men.”
Much of the works’ meaning, like Brendan Fernandes’s gallery-sized meta-critique of the appropriation of Africana by the West, however, begins to dull due to viewer oversaturation and a lack of curatorial focus. Nandipha Mntambo’s interspecies self-portraits as a bovine woman are gorgeous, yet feel somehow disconnected, and Walter Oltmann’s bristly bug costumes feel entirely out of place.
The final gallery, which is filled with various photographs and drawings of masked figures, feels necessary but tiring, and the closing work, Ebony G. Patterson’s admirable “72 Project” (2012), which acts as a solemn tribute to 72 Jamaican men killed in a drug raid by US and Jamaican forces, feels like a politically-charged afterthought.
Despite something of a curatorial overreach, all of the works in the show are quite compelling in their own right, and I imagine are only brought to a higher plane with SAM’s series of performances and programming, which saw some of the artists engage with their otherwise static work through dance. Like the Nick Cave Soundsuits that are mixed with the museum’s permanent installation of masks outside the exhibition, Disguise reintroduces a sense of wonder and urgency to a collection that’s gathered some dust.
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art continues at the Seattle Art Museum (1300 1st Ave, Seattle) through September 7.